H/B students look inward to help out others

HOLLIS – Some students in Ann Melim’s American Studies class at Hollis/Brookline High School say a two-month project they recently completed changed their lives.

“One of the best outcomes was having students say, ‘You can’t throw this project away. It’s here,’ ” Melim said, placing her hand across her heart.

This is the second year Melim has taught American Studies, a course for juniors offered as an alternative to advanced placement English and history.

Melim asked the 30 juniors in her class to come up with individual community service projects, developing them from inspiration to implementation.

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Projects ran the gamut from collecting shoes to send to Third World nations to organizing a concert series at a local assisted living facility. Each student had to come up with an idea, research it, make a plan and carry it through.

Students chose projects close to their hearts. A boy whose family has a history of ALS organized a fundraiser for the ALS Association; a girl whose parents founded a lacrosse program in town volunteered to coach two children’s teams on the weekends.

In the classroom, students learned about and discussed the individual’s responsibility to society.

“We had a debate. Would you enjoy it or would it defeat the purpose by making (community service) mandatory?” Melim said. Some students suggested that mandating community service, like attending school, could have unexpected, positive results.

Their consensus, Melim said, was, “What a better place our society would be if we thought about helping other people.”

Find a charity that you’re interested in, she told them. Base your actions on what you love.

For Justin Shutt, 17, it was the piles of unworn shoes in his closet that led to his project, collecting 1,220 pairs of shoes, everything from flip flops and baby shoes to work boots and high heels for Soles for Souls, a Tennessee-based charity that distributes shoes to people in more than 60 countries around the world who have no shoes to wear.

“There are over 300 million children in the world who have no shoes at all,” Shutt said he learned. “It’s a health issue, walking miles to school or to a water source, barefoot, getting cuts on your feet that get infected.”

Shutt said the project opened his eyes to his own good fortune and that of his classmates.

His classmate Patrick Clark, 17, made a similar discovery after putting together an ice hockey game, New Hampshire firefighters versus New Hampshire police officers, to benefit the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth Medical Center.

For his service project, Jared Rocco, 17, went to an assisted living facility in Bedford on Sundays and played the piano for two hours.

He said the idea for his project was inspired by his love of music and his affection for older people, starting with his grandparents.

“I want people to feel they’re still important members of society,” Rocco said.

During seven weeks of live performances, the teenager played requests ranging from “Bye Bye Blackbird” to “What a Wonderful World.”

He said playing the piano was the easy part. The challenge was making the arrangements.

“Before that, I wasn’t too comfortable talking on the phone, and I had to call every week,” Rocco said.

Not every project turned out according to plan, and not everyone’s path was a smooth one from inception to finish.

Attendance was extremely low at a dance marathon organized by Chris Courtemanche, 17, and held at the Lawrence Barn to benefit the ALS Association. But Courtemanche, whose family has a history of the disease, still met his goal, roughly $1,000.

“I raised what I projected, and it was a good feeling,” he said.

Courtemanche said his mother, who has the disease, was his mentor.

Shutt, the shoe collector, was moved by what he saw: “30 students, hundreds of hours, and Mrs. Melim saying, ‘You can do it!’ ”